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Will You Be the Next SeaWorld CEO?

By Rick Munarriz – Apr 7, 2020 at 10:30AM

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The theme park operator is once again going through captains like Spinal Tap goes through drummers.

CEOs don't tend to last long at SeaWorld Entertainment (SEAS -0.58%). Sergio Rivera abruptly resigned over the weekend, and the filing announcing the move cites disagreements with the board's heavy hand in the decision-making process as the reason for his exit. He lasted just five months at the helm.

He's not the first outsider brought in as CEO to last only a few months before leaving. Cruise industry executive Gus Antorcha did the same thing last year after just seven months as the marine life attraction's captain. He also resigned over the board's involvement in decision making. Neither former CEO was with the company long enough to collect severance, but how likely is SeaWorld to attract a quality replacement if its board has a reputation for being so difficult? If the CEOs the board itself is vetting can't even last a year in the job, doesn't that reflect poorly on the suffocating nature of the SeaWorld boardroom? 

It may be just a matter of time before you are called in to interview for the top post at SeaWorld Entertainment. If your contract has strings attached, it may be because they're just looking for a puppet. 

The Manta roller coaster at SeaWorld Orlando as it skims along the water

Image source: SeaWorld Entertainment.

The hit list

SeaWorld has a lot on its plate these days between shuttered parks, Blackfish-streaming activists protesting killer whales being held in captivity, and having just one year of solid growth in its first seven years as a publicly traded company.

There have been seven CEO changes since early 2015, and only one of them -- Joel Manby -- has lasted long enough to blow out the first candle on his CEO birthday cake.

  • Jan. 15, 2015 -- Jim Atchison is replaced by interim CEO David D'Alessandro.
  • April 7, 2015 -- D'Alessandro appoints Joel Manby as its new CEO.
  • March 1, 2018 -- SeaWorld exec John T. Reilly replaces Manby as interim CEO.
  • Feb. 18, 2019 -- Cruise industry exec Gus Antorcha was tapped to the helm.
  • Sept. 16, 2019 --  CFO Marc Swanson was named interim CEO after Antorcha resigned.
  • Nov. 11, 2019 -- Hospitality and timeshare vet Sergio Rivera became CEO
  • April 6, 2020 -- Rivera resigns, and Swanson returns as the temporary helmsman.
  • Aug. 1, 2020 -- You? 

History won't be kind when looking back on the short-lived Rivera era. He led the company for fewer than five months, and the stock surrendered nearly two-thirds of its value in that time. It was obviously not his fault that COVID-19 forced his chain of gated attractions into a historic shutdown last month.

With the parks closed for the past three weeks, you probably don't need to think too hard to guess what Rivera's disagreement with the board was. SeaWorld furloughed more than 90% of its staff last week, an inevitable move for a debt-saddled company that won't be generating revenue for a couple of months, but a bad look since it was the first major theme park operator to go that route. 

Before Rivera, the stock marched in place during Swanson's two-month run as interim CEO. The stock rose 16% during Antorcha's seven-month stint before that, doubling the market's return in that time. Manby served the longest tenure, but the stock actually declined during his nearly three years at the wheel. The only game-changer -- purely based on stock returns -- was Reilly, who saw the stock soar 61% in his nearly one-year run as interim CEO.

Reilly watched over SeaWorld through most of 2018, the one year in which attendance wasn't flat or negative with its 8.6% increase in turnstile clicks. If anyone earned the right to have the "interim" stripped from his title, it would've been him, and the irony here is that his time at the top was as long as the next two permanent CEOs combined. 

So, what (or who) will be next?

Who will SeaWorld go after now? Reaching out to executives in the cruise line and hospitality industries didn't work. An insider won't be a sexy hire with the stock hitting all-time lows last month. Anyone coming in now clearly knows that the board is calling the shots. This isn't a blank easel. This is a paint-by-numbers kit. 

You can probably run SeaWorld. You know the drill. SeaWorld is shifting to new rides and attractions, leaning away from controversial animal habitats and performances. SeaWorld is turning to foodie and boozy festivals to woo locals on weekends, taking a page out of the industry leader's playbook.

You may or may not be qualified to run SeaWorld, and with the chances high that the parks remain closed for a long time and a global recession awaits at the other end, you may not want to. Still, with how quickly the revolving door is spinning at the CEO office, it seems like everyone will eventually get a turn to run SeaWorld Entertainment.

Rick Munarriz owns shares of SeaWorld Entertainment. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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